Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post was first published in April 2011.
There was a rather weird initiative yesterday morning as I wandered from my bus to work around the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street – a mariachi band playing in time with pedestrians crossing the road and encouraging people to “check before they step”. It took a visit to Auckland Transport’s website to make sense out of it:
In line with a statistical change in the age of pedestrians being injured, Auckland Transport launched its new ‘Check Before You Step’ pedestrian safety campaign in Aotea Square targeting both pedestrians and drivers…
…At the campaign’s launch a mariachi band played as pedestrians cross the road in Queen Street, Auckland. They played when the lights turned green and stopped when they turned red. The band was a fun interactive way for Auckland Transport to reach its key audience. The campaign uses a cascade of media messages to raise awareness among pedestrians to cross safely and for motorists to slow down. Bus backs and bus shelters around key town centres and pedestrian routes will be used.
Campaigns to improve road safety are certainly excellent – and initiatives to get drivers to slow down is probably the absolute best way to improve road safety, particularly in busy pedestrian areas like downtown Auckland, but there’s a certain undercurrent to much of the thinking about this campaign that frustrates me a bit. Perhaps it’s best illustrated by this quote from Auckland Transport’s Community Transport Manager Matthew Rednall:
“Every day there are pedestrians not checking that the light is green before stepping out into oncoming traffic, and there are pedestrians rushing to get across before the light goes red…
…“Distractions such as listening to music through earphones, talking on mobile phones and jay-walking are also becoming factors in crashes,” said Mr Rednall.
By the sound of all this, you would think there are tonnes of pedestrians wandering out on roads just trying to get themselves killed. I think that’s fairly unlikely myself – and although pedestrians do need to take care when crossing the road, surely a greater onus needs to go onto drivers to make damn sure they’re not going to kill anyone when they’re driving around.
As an interesting aside, I wonder whether one of the most dangerous things for pedestrians in the city centre are the crossing sounds at traffic lights. Just the other day I was waiting, somewhat distracted in my thoughts, at the corner of Victoria and Albert Streets by the bungy machine and the crossing sound went off for the other phase – it was only after about three steps out onto the road did I realise it was for the other phase, and I quickly hurried back. I’m not quite sure how to resolve that particular issue, but I do wonder whether it factors in any vehicle/pedestrian accidents. Certainly I’ve seen over and over again people stepping out when they hear the noise, before quickly realising that it wasn’t actually for them.
Perhaps what annoys me about this “blame the pedestrian” syndrome, is how different things seemed in the North America during my trip there last year. One of the most striking memories I have is how friendly drivers in North American cities (particularly in New York City) are towards pedestrians. Here’s what I wrote back in September last year while visiting:
One thing that I have found interesting in New York is the interaction between pedestrians and motorists. Due to the NYC grid, there are thousands upon thousands of intersections with traffic-lights on Manhattan Island. That means a lot of roads to cross, a lot of lights to wait for. However, usually you don’t have to end up waiting – you just walk as there aren’t particularly many cars except on the main north-south avenues.
Even when there are cars coming through on a green light, they seem to always slow down and give way to pedestrians who are halfway across the road jay-walking. Perhaps it’s the massive number of pedestrians that makes this work, perhaps NYC drivers are just more concerned about pedestrian safety than in Auckland, or perhaps it’s something else altogether. I like the “greying” of the boundaries between pedestrians and vehicles that we see in NYC – a friendliness to pedestrians that I actually didn’t expect to see at all.
Although Manhattan is a really really busy place, both in terms of pedestrians and vehicles, it felt a really safe place to cross the road. Even if you stuffed something up, by forgetting which way traffic was turning or for a second thinking one was back in New Zealand and the cars went the other way, nothing ever seemed particularly dangerous because the drivers are careful.
In places like Auckland’s city centre, or on non-arterial local roads, I wonder whether we need to think a bit more radically about our efforts to improve pedestrian safety. Is there really a reason for any streets in the city centre to have a speed limit of higher than 30 kilometres an hour? Is there really a reason for the speed limits on non-arterial local roads to be any higher than 40 kph? Should pedestrians have a greater level of legal protection in these areas? Maybe one of the reasons pedestrians cross on red lights is because their phasing takes forever – why don’t we do something about that issue?
Those are some interesting questions to ponder, and I think changes like these would be far more effective than blaming pedestrians for getting themselves killed.